Tonto’s Dysfunctional Family Tree Essay
Tonto’s Dysfunctional Family Tree
America is a multicultural nation. This fact is undeniable. We are a mishmash of people from all parts of the globe, each with a unique story to tell. One of the struggles of being such a diverse nation is that different ethnic groups often fail to understand one another. I believe that cross-cultural writing is a powerful tool that dispels ignorance and fosters greater multicultural understanding. Writing has the power to bring people together. There are many prominent cross-cultural writers in the history of American literature. Each of them has added to a growing genre that explores what it’s like to move to this country in pursuit of the ever-elusive “American Dream.” Sherman Alexie is one such writer. However, his theme is not one of searching for the “American Dream.” His theme addresses what happens when the “American Dream” lands on you. Sherman Alexie is Native American, and his stories expose one of America’s dirty little secrets. In the paragraphs that follow, I will review Alexie’s life, the genre and style in which he writes, and the overall themes of his work. I will analyze the short story, “Every Little Hurricane”, taken from the anthology, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Sherman Alexie was born on October 7, 1966 in WellPoint, Washington. He belongs to the Spokane Tribe of American Indians called the Salish Group.
At the time of his birth he had hydrocephalus, a disease in which the patient has an excess of cerebrospinal fluid. The only option was to get an operation that he most likely would not survive. Yet despite these dire predictions, he survived an invasive surgery at the tender age of six months. He didn’t just survive; he thrived. Despite chronic seizures related to his condition, Sherman continues to power through life with extreme determination. He learned to read at the age of three and from then on nothing could hold him back. As a teen attending a reservation school Sherman was shocked to discovered his mother’s name inscribed in one of his textbooks. The realization that the school’s books were decades old led to his determination to leave the poverty-stricken reservation and get a thorough education elsewhere. He earned a spot in one of the top high schools in Reardon, Washington, where he was a star student and athlete. He proceeded to the University of Gonzaga, where his dream was to become a physician. After fainting from disgust in his anatomy class, he had to abandon this dream. It was during this dark time period that he began abusing alcohol. He then changed his major, a decision that was based on his love for poetry and aptitude for writing.
This change of direction brought him to Washington State University where he quit drinking and earned a B.A. in American Studies. Sherman Alexie began his professional career in 1990 when his work was published in Hanging Loose magazine. This initial success gave him the incentive to quit drinking at the age of 23, and he’s been sober ever since. His first collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was published in 1993, and that was just the beginning. In 1995 he launched his career as a novelist with Reservation Blues, an expanded version of the characters introduced in the previously mentioned collection. In 2007 he published a young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This novel is a reflection of his personal experience growing up on the Reservation. Alexie is the winner of numerous honors and awards including the 2001 PEN/Malamud Award, the 1994 PEN/Hemingway Award, the 2007 National Book Award, and the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award (www.fallsapart.com). Alexie is a modern writer who is not bound by a single genre.
He has written poetry, novels, screenplays, and most notably short stories. As the dominant Native American short story writer of today, he creates unique imagery through recurrent memories, visions and dream sequences. He utilizes diary entries, faux newspaper articles, and multiple storytellers to tell stories within stories. One example of this is seen in “Trial of Thomas Build-the–Fire”, where Thomas is personified as a number of historical figures. Alexie also uses cultural figures like Crazy Horse, Jesus Christ, Jimi Hendrix, and the Lone Ranger, to accentuate the complexities of his humble characters. According to Leslie Ullman “He weaves a curiously soft-blended tapestry of humor, humility, pride and metaphysical provocation out of hard realities… the tin-shack lives, the alcohol dreams, the bad luck and burlesque disasters, and the self-destructive courage of his characters.” (Ruby, M. 2011). I believe Ullman’s comment is right on point. All of the stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven challenge the reader intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
Alexie seems to have a two-fold purpose for telling his stories. Firstly, he yearns for all Native Americans to keep their memories and heritage alive through the art of storytelling. Secondly, he communicates how modern Native Americans endure the assault of mainstream culture on their heritage, imagination and spirit. While his writing is modern, traditional or historical elements like powwows, fancy dancing, alcoholism and poverty, are interwoven throughout. His writing juxtaposes sadness with humor, brutality with kindness, and spirituality with materialism. He depicts numerous prominent characters in this collection, rather than just one or two dominant characters. The compilation contains twenty-two short stories that are loosely interconnected. In the first story, “Every Little Hurricane”, Alexie introduces themes that play out through the rest of the book, such as poverty, despair, death, alcoholism, humiliation, and the hope of transformation. In this story Alexie explains the choice between remembering the pain of the past, and creating a false reality to avoid that pain. Alexie uses the character Victor, who is nine years old, to explain this struggle. The story is told from Victor’s perspective during a New Year’s Eve party at his parents’ home.
Disturbed by the drinking and extreme violence, Victor comforts himself by imagining that a hurricane has caused the destruction, rather than his own tribe. The hurricane is a fitting metaphor because it hits on both the emotional turmoil and social chaos prevalent in Victor’s dysfunctional family. Victor is faced with the decision to either remember what really happened, or forget by instead imagining that a hurricane caused the devastation. Ultimately, he chooses to accept the reality of his disturbing childhood. However, even though he chooses to live in the truth, he resorts to finding comfort in the only way he can, which is between the two unconscious bodies of his drunk parents.
Alexie points out that the dysfunction in Victor’s family is the result of a long-standing attitude on the Reservation. Violence has become habitual, and therefore accepted. This point is made when Adolph and Arnold (Victor’s uncles) begin to fight, getting mired in “a misdemeanor that would remain one even if somebody was to die. . . . [For] one Indian killing another did not create a special kind of storm.” (Alexie, p 3) Alexie implies that American Indians have internalized all of the violence that has been perpetrated against them since their first contact with Europeans, so that even murdering one of their own goes almost unnoticed.
The oppression that they have suffered has turned them into silent witnesses. According to Victor, “They were all witnesses and nothing more.” (Alexie, p 3) As the story continues, Alexie points out that alcoholism is the most serious problem facing Victor’s tribe. Victor’s most powerful memory is of his father crying over the absence of Christmas presents, while getting drunk to escape the pain of the family’s abject poverty. His father continuously opens and closes an empty wallet “as if the repetition itself could guarantee change. But it was always empty.” (Alexie, p 5) Alexie shows the pervasiveness of alcoholism with continual references to the smell and taste of sweat, smoke, whiskey and blood. These are constant companions of Victor’s existence, so that he actually believes that “the alcohol seeping through [his parents] skin might get him drunk, might help him sleep.” (Alexie, p 9) From day one Victor is forced to gain survival skills to handle extreme fear and poverty.
When he sees “an old, [drunk] Indian man drowned in a mud puddle at the powwow” (Alexie, p 7) he understands that alcoholism is not his family’s problem alone. It is a problem of his entire culture. After completing The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven it is obvious to me that Sherman Alexie is as Bob Hershon so aptly put it, “one of the major lyric voices of our time.” (Alexie, p xiii) His writing pulls the cover off of America’s dirty little secret of what life is like growing up on the Reservation. Many critics have vilified him for perpetuating the stereotype of the drunk Indian.
This is not so. Alexie doesn’t write about the destructive effects of alcohol on Indians due to some literary stance or prejudiced perspective. Simply put, he is truth telling. I have wracked my brain to come up with an overall theme for this piece of literature. Then it came to me in a flash. Why not use Alexie’s own words, “I kept trying to figure out the main topic, the big theme, the overarching idea, the epicenter. And it is this: The sons in this book really love and hate their fathers.” (Alexie, p xxii)
Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York, NY:Grove Press, 1993, 2005.
Falls Apart, Offical Website, http://www.fallsapart.com, 2013 Johansen, Bruce E. Native Americans Today: A Biographical Dictionary. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood Press, 2010. Ruby, Mary. Authors & Artists for Young Adults Vol. 85. Detroit, Mich: Gale / Cengage Learning, 2011.